After gymnast Suni Lee took home a gold medal in Tokyo last month, all eyes were on her. Lee, 18, became a favorite of the internet, and onlookers noticed something consistent through her routines: her acrylic nails.
They were the work of the Hmong American nail artists at Minneapolis-based Little Luxuries. The salon's owner said the staff had been following Lee, who is also Hmong American, since before the Olympics and had messaged her on Instagram before the trials.
Owner Amy Vang and artist Elizabeth Lee said they never expected that an Instagram exchange this summer would land their nails on the global stage.
"We didn't think she was going to reply to us," Vang said. "We just thought we would give it a try."
Not only did Suni respond; she was at Little Luxuries the next week to get a set of acrylics. Before she left for Tokyo, she came in again.
Elizabeth Lee sketched out a design — a plain white set with the colorful Olympic rings painted on one hand and blue and red waves on the other. The two never expected the nails to draw any attention, and Vang said the reaction has been overwhelming.
"It was just unbelievable," she said. "We just wanted to give her nice nails."
Vang and Elizabeth Lee grew up in nail salons. Living in North Carolina with their Hmong American family, the cousins watched over Vang's mom's shoulders as she painted to perfection.
When she had too much on her plate, the girls would even help with small tasks like removing polish. As an adult, Vang realized that she shared that passion, and she wanted to make it hers. So she opened her own place: Little Luxuries Nail Lounge in Minnesota.
"Friends of the family would come over, and I would just sit there and polish their nails," Vang said. "I kind of just trained myself."
The decision for Suni Lee to keep her nails on during precarious floor and bar routines shocked some people online. But she said they help her grip the bar. In addition, "it's good luck," she said in an interview on Talkin' Tokyo last week.
"Whenever I miss the bar, it hurts really bad, so it makes me catch the bar," she said, referring to the square acrylic shape.
Suni became the first Hmong American to represent Team USA and the first Asian American woman to win gold in the Olympics' all-around competition. Vang said that in a year that has been characterized by anti-Asian sentiment and violence, the win provides a little bit of light.
"She's impacted the whole world," Vang said. "Especially during a time like this with the anti-Asian hate going on, she made everything feel at peace. She's just so perfect and so innocent and so pure, and she's just what America needed right now in this moment."
Vang and Elizabeth Lee say that they watch her with pride and that her win will help more people recognize and understand the Hmong community.
For children and families in her community, Vang knows Suni Lee will continue to inspire.
"It's just so common in our community and in our culture for women to not really be able to follow their dreams or do the things they want to do," Vang said. "She made her dreams come true."